29 December 2017

Night Strangers


After Chip Linton crashlands his plane in Lake Champlain, causing the death of thirty-nine passengers, he and his family decide to rebuild their lives in rural New Hampshire. The old farmhouse they purchase is a ramshackle affair, full of unsettling wallpaper and hidden weapons, that has seen its share of tragedy. The locals seem friendly enough -- although the local “herbalists” seem weirdly fascinated with the Linton twins, they appear well-intentioned and supply the new arrivals with a steady flow of baked goods and treats.

Unfortunately, while Emily and the girls seem to fit right in, Chip can’t settle down. There’s a door in the creepy, dirt-floored cellar sealed with thirty-nine carriage bolts, you see. Its existence nags at him. As do the ghosts of three of his dead passengers -- especially the littlest ghost, who deserves playmates her own age.

I enjoyed Night Strangers immensely. It was, for me, the perfect, creepy Christmas Eve read. The (deceptively) slow pace of the novel was made deliciously torturous by the constant undercurrent of foreboding -- with every page turned I thought “and now SOMETHING TERRIBLE must happen,” but no. Just the slow, suspenseful slide of Chip from PTSD into Redrum Crazy. And then ... and then all hell broke loose and everything I’d vaguely suspected or feared occurred in a wild denouement that left me torn between “What the hell, Chris Bohjalian?” and “I love you, Chris Bohjalian!”

Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian. Crown Publishers, 2011. Kindle edition.

27 December 2017

Wordless Wednesday: White Christmas

A little snow on Christmas Day sets the mood (and hides a variety of gardening sins).

26 December 2017

Christmas Dinner 2017

I confess I planned my Christmas Dinner on December 23. Oh, I’d ordered a roast well before then – because roasted beef tenderloin was the obvious choice -- but how I was going to prepare the roast and what dishes would accompany it was very much left to the last possible day. Two weeks before, I got out all my holiday cookbooks with the intention of crafting a tasty menu. But I just wasn’t feeling it. Couldn’t be arsed, even. Christmas could go humbug itself.

Which didn’t make a lot of sense, considering I’d been decking the halls and humming carols all the live long day since December 1. I think I was very much looking forward to the fun of Christmas Dinner, but the work of it -- the planning and the shopping -- was something I actively wanted to avoid. Couldn’t we just, I thought, get take out?

I could imagine my mother’s face if I ever suggested such a thing.

Anyway, I pulled myself together at the eleventh hour and planned a menu. And then we shopped for it Christmas Eve morning ... which turned out to be much less traumatic than I had anticipated. The weather had been bad the night before so many people seemed slow to venture out and we managed to whiz around the stores, scooping up everything we needed became too crowded and I shivved someone with a sprig of rosemary.



Christmas Dinner 2017
🎄
Carrots w/ Butter & Parsley
Roasted Broccoli w/ Parmesan & Italian Herbs
Tinned Peas of Marital Happiness
Rolls & Butter
Olive Medley
Bûche de Noël w/ Fresh Whipped Cream

The beef was fabulous, but you really need to mind the temperature when cooking (and start with a scrupulously clean oven or be prepared to open all the kitchen windows). I took the 7.5 pound roast out of the oven when my thermometer read 135°F with the assumption it would rise to 140°F after resting and be a nice medium rare.

Alas, upon carving, it was revealed to be so rare as to be raw and inedible. Disheartened, I threw the thick slices back in the hot oven for 5 minutes and, to my relief, that brought them up to medium rare/medium. It was a truly delicious roast, regardless, and I do recommend the high-heat method. (I did rub the beef with Simply Ghee® Black Garlic Ghee, bought this past autumn at the Connecticut Garlic & Harvest Festival, rather than plain butter for extra pizazz).

The horseradish sauce was a great accompaniment. It went together in no time flat and has kept well in the fridge. I did double the amount of horseradish called for as my family likes a zippy sauce.

There’s no recipe for the carrots, really. I peeled and thickly sliced all the CSA carrots I had left (about a pound) from the Thanksgiving box and boiled them until tender, then tossed them with butter, salt, pepper, parsley, and a little sugar and let them sit on a warm burner until we needed them. Do not judge me for the use of sugar. It is something my Grandmother Gardner always added to her carrots and it does, imho, bring out their carrotiness.

There’s also no real recipe for the broccoli. I took a bag of fresh chopped florets, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings and then roasted them in the 500°F oven for the 10 minutes the beef rested. When the broccoli came out of the oven, I tossed it with shredded Parmesan, and plopped it all into a warmed serving bowl.

Don’t judge me for the tinned peas. According to The Husband, peas are a necessity when served mashed potatoes and he just happens to like tinned peas best of all peas. I did splash out and buy the 50% Less Sodium Le Sueur® Very Young Small Sweet Peas, because we’re nothing but top shelf at Christmas.

Leeks might not be something you’d think about putting in mashed potatoes, but they’re just really big scallions, after all. I had two CSA leeks leftover and lots of garlic on hand so the Betty Crocker recipe was pretty much a godsend. The mashed potatoes were a lovely pale gold, creamy, and yum. Garlicky and leek-y, of course, but not aggressively so. A repeater, definitely.

And that was Christmas Dinner. And it was good. And now we shall subsist on (delicious) leftovers until Friday when there may be duck. Hooray.


21 December 2017

Cookbook Club Cookie Exchange

December is a busy month and, while I didn’t want to skip the library’s cookbook club two months in a row, I didn’t want to overwhelm library patrons with additional holiday cooking. So I decided to forgo the usual potluck supper and cookbook discussion format for a cookie exchange. Everyone likes cookies, after all.


On the morning of the event, sixteen patrons were registered. Twelve excited patrons bearing trays of delicious-looking cookies turned up that evening and that was fine as I’d planned ahead for no-shows. That was why I had instructed everyone neither to portion their cookies out ahead of time nor to make a specific number of cookies. Make whatever your recipe says it makes (or close enough) and we’ll divide by the number of people who come, I said.

As I'd expected, it worked out well that way. I had pre-printed small signs that said “take __” and, after all the patrons had arrived with their cookies, I divided each batch of cookies by 12 and filled in the blank. Obviously, not everything divided evenly and there were leftover cookies, but I just let the patrons go up again at the end and take whatever they wanted. It was an friendly crowd and I wasn’t worried about anyone coming to blows over the Italian Christmas cookies. (Amusingly, they kept trying to get me to take cookies, too, but as I had not baked for the exchange I did not feel I could rightly take any).

The library had provided cookie tins for everyone who turned up. I’d found some nice, seasonal plastic ones printed with candy canes and ornaments at Stop and Shop for $2 each. I bought twenty tins and just returned the unused ones after the program. We don’t have the space to keep the extras and budgets, etc being as they are I don’t want to plan too far ahead, anyway.


Budget-wise, this was more costly than the regular monthly cookbook club meetings, but still less expense than, say, any of the Doctor Who programs I’ve done. About $75 for twenty cookie tins, seven disposable seasonal tablecloths, seasonal paper napkins, chocolates, satsumas, and a cheese and cracker tray. Coffee and water is always provided by the library, so those were not factored into my costs.


Aside from the seasonal tablecloths and paper goods, I didn’t have much going for seasonal decor and the program room looked a bit drab. Happily, I remembered the wall-mounted flat screen TV had integrated Internet so I pulled up a long-playing YouTube video of a crackling fireplace set to instrumental carols and that was that!


20 December 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Tree's Up!

Actually finished decorating the tree before Christmas Eve this year. Last few years, it's been a mad sprint to get it decorated before guests arrive. Sometimes, I am tempted to have a tree decorating party ... but that feels rather too much like Tom Sawyer and the fence.

13 December 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Christmas Cards

Getting the Christmas cards out a little late (again) for international delivery. It's the thought that counts, right?

07 December 2017

Special Delivery From Taste of Home: Fall 2017

The revamped Taste of Home subscription box service -- formerly Taste the Seasons, but now Special Delivery From Taste of Home -- continues to be wonderful and the autumn box was full of so many nice things.


Taste of Home Taste of Home Holidays & Celebrations -- A 2015 publication. Broken into seasons, this cookbook covers all the major secular American holidays as well as more casual events like pool parties and afternoon tea. I'm hosting Christmas this year, so the winter section is currently quite thick with sticky notes. The Beef Tenderloin With Mushroom-Wine Sauce or Roger Bowld's Salt-Encrusted Prime Rib are currently vying for entree.

Oxo Good Grips Dough Mixer With Blades. I already own this pastry blender and it works really well for dough ... and egg salad. I will probably give this new one away as a door prize during the library cookbook swap I'm organizing for April.

Tovolo Precision Pie Cutter. It's a compass for your pie crust! Attach the edge blade you desire -- loose wave, tight wave, scalloped and straight -- plonk the "pivot" end down on the middle of your rolled dough, then rotate the arm around to cut the prettiest circular crust. I have not actually tried this yet -- pie crust is my nemesis -- but it looks pretty easy. Maybe, I'll make a chicken potpie?

Kitchen Envy Small Silicone Baking Mat. A 9"x12" flexible nonstick baking liner. Perfectly fits my quarter sheet pan. My mat came rolled up in a tube, but flattened right out when I unrolled it. It feels nice and sturdy, as if it will last a while, and I like that it is pre-marked for optimal cookie, etc placement.

Fire & Flavor Turkey Perfect Herb Brine Kit. I've never brined a turkey before -- it just seemed like a lot of effort and I've always had a vague feeling I'd managed to do it wrong and ruin dinner -- but the display of Fire & Flavor brine kits are Bed, Bath and Beyond were seriously tempting me last month, so I'm glad this came in the fall box. The kit includes brine mix, brining bag, recipes, and instructions. I just supply the turkey, water, sugar, vinegar, and ice.

Gustus Vitae Rosemary Lemon Sea Salt Gourmet Salt. This flavor was developed exclusively for Taste of Home which is a little frustrating. On the one hand, it's cool I have a unique product unavailable to anyone else. On the other, I will not be able to acquire more of it. And it is yummy stuff. Currently, my favorite use is to sprinkle it over hot popcorn, but it's really good on salmon, too. The tin is magnetic so it can stick to your fridge or whathaveyou, but I find the lid leaks a little and so prefer to store it flat in my spice drawer.

My Spice Sage Cinnamon Stick Chunks. My Spice Sage products make a regular appearance in Taste of Home boxes and I'm always pleased to see them as they're always good quality. This cinnamon sticks are broken into one-inch chunks which makes them easier to fit into mulling spice balls or herb bags. So far, I've used some of mine to make "Slow Cooker Spiced Apple & Pear Butter."

Again, I continue to be impressed by this revamped subscription box service and look forward to seeing what the Winter Special Delivery From Taste of Home box has in store for me. Read about my experiences with Special Delivery and its precursor, Taste the Seasons.

06 December 2017

Wordless Wednesday: A Sweet Advent

Already fallen a few days behind with the Advent calendar!

30 November 2017

Rotini with Butternut Squash & Pancetta

The Thanksgiving CSA share was full of Cucurbita -- acorn, butternut, and autumn crown winter squash plus a few wee sugar pumpkins -- and I couldn't be happier. Not only because I love to eat winter squash, but also because the delicious little cucurbits will keep practically forever when stored properly, meaning I can eat CSA squash well into February.

But who am I trying to kid? I'll have eaten them all by Christmas!


The dish below is loosely inspired by Melt's recipe for "Roaring Forties with Honey Roasted Delicata Squash, Sage Butter, and Rotini" I made last month. In my dish, everything cooks on the stovetop -- freeing up the oven to bake the dozen wee sweet potatoes that were also in my CSA share -- and I've replaced the nuts with pancetta.


Rotini with Butternut Squash & Pancetta

Yield: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 oz chopped yellow onion
  • 4 oz chopped pancetta
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, & diced small (¼-inch cubes)
  • ½ tsp rosemary
  • ½ tsp sage
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 10 oz whole grain rotini
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 oz crumbled blue cheese, plus extra to serve

Instructions

  1. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium in a large Dutch/French oven. Add pancetta and cook for a few mins or until much of the fat is rendered out. Add the onion and cook for 5 mins, until it softens and the pancetta is crispy.
  2. Add the butter, squash, rosemary, sage, thyme, and crushed red pepper flakes. Mix well to combine. Cover and cook for 10-12 mins, stirring occasionally, until the squash is soft, but not mushy. Remove from heat.
  3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the back of the box. Drain and add to the squash mixture. Add the blue cheese and season to taste. Serve in pasta bowls sprinkled with extra blue cheese.


For years, I thought winter squash was called such because it was harvested in the fall and we needed a name to clearly differentiate it from summer squash, but NO. I know nothing. Winter squash is so named because it keeps through the winter. So obvious.

29 November 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Hill-Stead

Hill-Stead, a Colonial Revival mansion, was the first architectural project of Theodate Pope Riddle, fourth registered female architect in the United States.

27 November 2017

Cream of the Crop


Cream of the Crop is the second book in Clayton's Hudson Valley Series and is set not too long after Nuts. One of Roxie's BFFs, Natalie Grayson, takes on an advertising campaign for the small Hudson Valley town of Bailey Falls. Like many twee New England towns, it is struggling to attract and keep tourists and the locals hope Natalie's hot advertising firm can give it the boost it needs. Meanwhile, Natalie hopes to get closer to The Hot Dairy Farmer who makes her favorite brie ... and who reduces her to a blushing, stammering, lust-maddened wreck whenever she sees him.

Unfortunately, I couldn't quite get into Cream of the Crop. Mostly, I never really felt I connected well enough with Oscar Mendoza to care about him. He's frequently monosyllabic, boorish, rude -- indeed, there's a scene toward the end where Oscar's behavior is utterly reprehensible (and no good explanation/excuse for it is supplied). I get that he's meant to be Natalie's sexy "caveman," but I needed something more from his storyline to fully embrace Oscar as Natalie's romantic interest. Maybe, more about his family -- they're all still alive, footballing and farming in Wisconsin, after all -- or friends he might have other than Leo or the ex-wife, Missy (who he consistently prioritized over Natalie -- it's admirable when people can be friends their exes, but that doesn't feel like what's going on between Oscar and Missy). I get that Natalie finds Oscar totally hot and loves fucking him, but ... why does she love him? Why does he love her? Does he? Does she? Is this even a romance?

Also, I felt uncomfortable with Natalie's description of Oscar's looks and her general fixation on his sheer beefcakeness. Every rich white girl needs a little caramel macchiato pick-me-up, ammirite? Oscar Mendoza is Natalie's Jason Momoa fantasy?? I don't know. It felt like, maybe, we didn't need an Oscar backstory because Natalie just needed an Oscar-shaped sex machine who growled "Pinup" and "great, big ass" and fucked her six ways to Sunday. That there was no need for Oscar to ever be a fully-fleshed human being. But, again, how then could this be a romance?

In general, Natalie herself left me conflicted. I enjoyed watching her work her advertising magic for Bailey Falls while slowly realizing that she could have it all -- a job she loved, a man she adored fucking, the city, the country, and the fromage. Also, Natalie's near constant internal monologue was both hilariously witty and delightfully dirty. She was clearly a woman who had figured out what she liked, how to get it with regularity, and made no apologies for any of it. But. In addition to the objectification of Oscar, she did sometimes come across as a self-centered rich girl and the whole "I'll make sure the ad campaign includes Chad and Logan (The Token Gays) so everyone knows how truly family-friendly Bailey Falls is" just made me go UGH a lot.

In the end, while I have mixed feelings about Cream of the Crop, I still look forward to reading the next book in Clayton's Hudson Valley Series, Buns, featuring Clara and the new owner of the Bryant Mountain House.

Cream of the Crop by Alice Clayton (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

22 November 2017

Wordless Wednesday: November Leaves

Late November and so many leaves are still on the trees.

19 November 2017

Mom's Cabbage & Noodles

The bonus Thanksgiving CSA share included onions and green cabbage. As soon as I saw the cabbage head, I knew I wanted to make my mom's cabbage and noodles. It's an easy, comforting dish perfect for a miserable November day, when the wind roars in the chimney and the sun shines too weakly to give real warmth.


While I've given you Mom's recipe as she gave it to me, I usually double the onions and add chopped garlic. Also, sometimes I stir a tablespoon of spicy brown mustard in with the noodles, to give the dish a little kick. While Mom says to leave the dish two days in the fridge for tastiest results, the best I've managed is overnight. The flavors are better when it's sat overnight, so she's probably right about waiting two days ... I am merely too impatient (and hungry) to do so.


Mom's Cabbage & Noodles

Yield: 4, generously

Ingredients

  • ½ large green cabbage
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 lb egg noodles
  • ½-1 stick butter
  • Dill seed, caraway seed, & parsley to taste
  • Salt & pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Chop cabbage.
  2. Melt butter in a pan.
  3. Sauté onion in pan until tender. Add cabbage and seasonings. Cover and let steam until cabbage is tender.
  4. Cook noodles a directed. Drain and add to cabbage.
  5. Adjust seasonings to taste. Best if it sits in the fridge 2 days.
  6. Serve with Polish smoked sausage or corned beef and lots of spicy brown mustard.


16 November 2017

Kohlrabi, Potato, & Leek Soup

As the fall has been so warm and mild, my weekly CSA share has been extended through to December. Unlike the summer, where I cruised the tables at the farmers market every Friday and selected whatever took my fancy, I now get a blind box of seasonal goodness. So far, I’ve received fennel, winter squash, tomatoes, peppers, pears, apples, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, eggplant, napa cabbage ... and a whole bunch of other good things I'm sure I'm forgetting. It’s been a little overwhelming, to be honest, but I’m doing my best to turn everything into tasty eats!


With ingredients from my first “extender” box, I made Betty Crocker's simply yumptious Tomato-Fennel Soup. I’d cooked fennel precisely once before and found it overwhelmingly licorice-y, so prepare to be similarly disappointed, but -- maybe it is true that tomatoes and alliums make everything better -- this soup was probably one of the best tomato soups I have ever eaten and I really look forward to cooking with fresh fennel again.

Last week, I received two trimmed kohlrabi heads in my box and I was very “Huh. Kohlrabi. I made a slaw out of this last time ... ehhhh.” While the slaw had been fine, I don’t crave slaw in November and my ostomy’s been a bit iffy about raw vegetables so … soup! Yes, more soup. Since I had leeks and some gnarly looking potatoes on hand, too, I thought I’d make a potato, leek, and kohlrabi soup. One of the cookbooks I’d skimmed at the library had said I could peel the kohlrabi bulbs and treat the flesh like that of a turnip, so that’s what I did. I don’t know if these kohlrabi were in some way physically superior to my previous kohlrabi or, maybe it was just that I already had experience, but peeling them was much easier than I remembered -- just like peeling an apple, really.


My soup spawned from a mishmash of recipes -- some from the internet, others from cookbooks -- so there are probably much better ways to do this than how I did. Also, it’s a very leek-y, turnip-y tasting soup, so you really need to like those flavors to enjoy this soup.



Kohlrabi, Potato, & Leek Soup

Yield: 6 (generously)

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 leek, white & light green parts only, sliced into thick coins
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp salt-free Italian seasoning blend
  • ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 large russet potato, peeled & cubed
  • 1 large kohlrabi, peeled & cubed
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper, as desired

Instructions

  1. Heat the olive in a large pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, shallots, garlic, onion, crushed red pepper flakes, and Italian seasoning. Cook gently for five minutes, stirring often, or until the alliums begin to soften and become fragrant.
  2. Add the potato, kohlrabi, vegetable broth, and bay leaf to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until kohlrabi and potatoes are easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.
  3. Remove pot from heat, discard the bay leaf, and let the soup cool for a few minutes.
  4. When the soup is no longer dangerously hot, blitz it with a stick blender or whathaveyou until smooth.
  5. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

15 November 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Remembering Hedwig

My Hedwig, a year gone this week. I still half-expect to find her snoozing behind "her" curtain or sunbathing on the window seat.

09 November 2017

#ImprovCookingChallenge: Winter Squash & Bacon

November's Improv Cooking Challenge is all about winter squash and bacon. Winter squash -- particularly butternut -- was my childhood gateway to squash love and I am still quite capable of eating an entire tray of roasted squash all on my own with no accompaniments. There's just something about roasted winter squash -- rich, creamy, sweet, earthy -- that I cannot get enough of.


For this Improv Cooking Challenge dish, I roasted delicata squash with Brussels sprouts, shallots, and pancetta:

Delicata squash is a recent discovery for me. I first heard about it in cookbook club and then it began appearing in my CSA share. It is, as far as winter squashes go, adorable -- a plump little yellow-and green-striped sausage of a squash. The thin, edible skin that makes it much easier to process than some of the other, sturdier-looking winter squash and the flavor is rich and creamy -- kind-of like a cross between a sweet potato and butternut squash. If you want to try my recipe, but can’t find delicata squash, acorn squash can be substituted (but you won’t be able to eat the skin).

My CSA share Brussels sprouts were excessively wee -- like marbles or large blueberries -- so I roasted them whole. Larger sprouts will need to be halved or quartered to make sure they’re done at the same time as the squash.

I used Pancetta, “the Italian bacon,” because I’m fancy. No, actually, I was just too lazy to buy thick-cut bacon and cut it into lardons. The grocery store sells three varieties of diced pancetta and I saw that as I sign I should take the easy way out.


Delicata & Brussels Sprouts With Pancetta

Yield: 4 side dish servings

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces diced pancetta
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 delicata squash, halved, seeded, and sliced into ½” thick half moons
  • 8oz small Brussels sprouts, trimmed
  • 2 shallots, sliced thickly (like pound coins)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • ¼ or more red chile pepper flakes, to taste
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  2. Set a skillet over medium-high heat and combine the pancetta with the oil. Cook, stirring, until the pancetta pieces have started to crisp and render off some of their fat.
  3. Combine the squash in a bowl with the Brussels sprouts, shallots, and rosemary. Add in the browned pancetta with its oil, chile pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper. Toss well, combining thoroughly to make sure all the vegetables are coated. If they seem a little dry, add a splash of olive oil.
  4. Spread in a single layer on the foil-lined baking sheet. Try not to crowd the vegetables together or they will not roast so prettily. Cook for 20 minutes or until the sprouts and squash are tender and their the edges are starting to brown.

The dish can be served immediately, but (imho) it's better if allowed to cool down a bit -- the flavors seem to stand out more. Makes about four servings as a side dish. If you have leftovers, it is really delightful (like, I specifically hold some back just to do this) on a flatbread with fontina and blue cheese:

Brush flatbread with a little olive oil (garlic-infused is fab). Top with shredded fontina cheese, then roasted vegetables, then a scatter of crumbled blue cheese. Sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary. Bake on a pizza stone in a 425°F oven about 10 minutes or until the crust is crispy and the cheese has melted. Remove from oven and eat. It's fabulous.


For anyone new to my blog, the Improv Cooking Challenge is a monthly blog hop where two ingredients are assigned, participants must make a new-to-their-blog recipe using both ingredients, and publish a blog post about it on the second Thursday of the month. If you think that sounds like fun, click on the Improv Cooking Challenge logo below.




08 November 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Seed heads

Seed heads from a woody garden weed. Birds seem to like it so I've left it be ... which means the vegetable bed will be full of it next spring.

06 November 2017

Nuts


Many years ago Roxie Callahan escaped her tiny Hudson Valley town years ago to study at the CIA California. After graduation, she became a private chef and, after years of hard work, has become modestly successful. No need to ever go back to suffocatingly twee Bailey Falls, right?

But then Roxie abruptly finds herself jobless and very short on cash. When her mother calls up, asking Roxie to take care of the family diner for her while she goes off on a grand adventure, Roxie really has no choice but to go home. Happily, Bailey Falls is not without its charms ... not least of which is hot organic farmer (very rich in old New York money, btw) Leo Maxwell.

I really enjoyed Nuts. From beginning to end, it is a lighthearted romp set in a sweet fantasy confection of a small New England town. Roxie and Leo's romance is consistently hot and fun -- they clearly genuinely like each other from the get-go and take enjoyment in each other's company as much outside of the bedroom as in it. There are a few dramatic moments toward the end, when a "secret" Leo has been keeping is revealed, but it is handled in a realistic, adult way that makes sense for the characters and the story. I liked that Clayton did not give Roxie and Leo a Happy Ever After, but a Happy Enough Right Now. A HEA would have felt unconvincing, moving their story ahead too fast. I loved that Roxie retained her autonomy and space while still being clearly and completely entangled with Leo.

The large supporting cast of characters was well fleshed out and entertaining. I did, however, wonder where the other queer folk were (Chad Bowman and Logan, while extremely charming, felt like tokens) and whether Bailey Falls had any non-white people, but I always wonder that. There was lots of talk about food and loving descriptions of cooking, which left me famished -- as did the ohmygodsohot sex.

If you enjoy cooking (or just reading about cooking) and have ever fantasized about living in an idealized Smalltown USA, nibbling luscious local produce whilst being rigorously seen to by a hot farmer, Nuts is for you. It certainly felt like it was written for me, anyway. I've read a lot of romance and erotica, but never before something that came so near to ticking all the boxes.

Nuts is the first book in Clayton's Hudson Valley Series, of which there are currently three. I certainly look forward to reading the next book, Cream of the Crop, featuring one of Roxie's BFFs and the beautiful dairy farmer next door.

Nuts by Alice Clayton (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

02 November 2017

Halloween-y Marbled Cupcakes


I’d meant to make HHalloween spritz cookies again, but ... ehhh ... life. So I knocked together these Halloween-y marbled cupcakes using a box mix, canned icing, and liberal amounts of gel food color.

First, I prepared a Betty Crocker™ Super Moist™ Favorites White Cake Mix following the instructions on the back of the box. Then, I split the batter between two bowls and tinted each with liberal amounts of gel food color. (I chose to use black and purple, but in hindsight it’s clear orange or green would have made a sharper contrast against the black). I then spooned the batter into cupcake liners -- alternating colors as I went and then giving each cup a gentle swirl with a skewer -- and baked them according to the box.

When the cupcakes were cooled, I beat green food gel into a can of Betty Crocker™ Creamy White Rich & Creamy Frosting until I’d reached a Frankenstein-ish green. I iced the cupcakes with frosting, sprinkled them with green sugar for extra sparkle, and ... that was it, really.

I admit they’re pretty and I have been happy enough to nom a couple with a mug of tea, but they’re not as good as scratch-made. The Husband is not that keen on the canned frosting and keeps scraping it off before devouring the cake beneath!

Tl;dr: next time, when feeling lazy, simply buy cute Halloween cupcakes from the cupcakery.

31 October 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Wigwam

Wigwam at Indian Rock Nature Preserve

30 October 2017

Little Beach Street Bakery


After the company she co-owns goes bankrupt, the bank takes her flat, and her lover goes home to his mother, Polly finds herself living in poky little flat over a decrepit-looking bakery on the tidal island of Mount Polbearne off the Cornish coast. There she returns to her old hobby of bread-baking and slowly begins to supply bread to the island’s inhabitants, befriending some of them along the way. Of course, as is to be expected, Polly becomes quite a successful baker, regains the security and confidence she lost in the bankruptcy, and falls in love with a total hottie.

While Colgan does not skirt around the difficulties of life in a dwindling British fishing community and the book can be quite heartbreakingly sad at points, it is still an overwhelmingly warm and pleasant book, full of lovely carbs, honey, and puffins. Oh my cake, the puffins. THE PUFFIN. Neil is the best puffin sidekick a reader could wish for and I am so pleased to see Colgan has written an entire children’s series about Polly and her Puffin.

As with Colgan’s other foodie romances, there are several recipes at the end of Little Beach Street Bakery. The cheese straw recipe looks like something to serve with tomato soup and the focaccia is definitely a yeast bread I could handle ... not so sure about the cinnamon buns or the bagels, though!

There are two more books in the Little Beach Street series, Summer at the Little Beach Street Bakery and Christmas at the Little Beach Street Bakery, and I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on them as soon as possible.

With light in my head
You in my arms
Woohoo!


(Did I mention the book quotes the Water Boys extensively? No? Well, it does. I know. I know. References to the Water Boys and lots of good bread? Heaven).

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan (HarperCollins, 2014)

28 October 2017

Exploring Melt: The Art of Macaroni & Cheese for Cookbook Club

For September's library cookbook club, one participant brought "Roaring Forties with Honey Roasted Delicata Squash, Sage Butter, and Rotini" from Stephanie Stiavetti & Garret McCord's Melt: The Art of Macaroni & Cheese (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013). She'd checked out the book, completely enamored with the gooey cheesiness on the cover, but then been kind-of turned off by most of the recipes in the book as they were not "mac and cheezy" enough for her -- the cookbook is a very "gourmet" take on macaroni and cheese, using many pricey, artisanal cheeses. Anyway, she did not think much of the rotini recipe -- felt in needed bacon and a different cheese, but brought it along anyway for us all to try.

Overall, we found the dish unmemorable ... a bit dry and the flavors didn't meld together, but it wasn't bad in any definable way ... just rather meh. We all agreed the addition of something (probably bacon or pancetta) might have improved it. Admittedly, the cook had substituted butternut for delicata (couldn't find delicata at the shops) and another blue for the Roaring Forties (ditto). And the dish sat for an hour or so at room temperature before the cook book club sampled it ... so its meh-ness was not entirely the recipe's fault.


I ended up bringing Melt home with me after the meeting and kept going back to the rotini recipe, wondering if I could do better with the correct ingredients. Then I looked around on the Internet for Roaring Forties cheese and found that it was a fancy Australian blue cheese that retailed for $38/pound. Well, I thought, that's a clear nope.


Ah. But then ... delicata squash appeared in my CSA share and I decided, what the heck, I would give the recipe a try. An entire rainy afternoon lay open before me, rich with possibility, so I cracked open a bottle of red and went to work. [While no one recipe step is difficult or fiddly, so much of the dish is prepared separately, only to be brought together at the end, that it feels as if the recipe is taking an inordinate amount of time to make. Therefore, I really recommend you make this dish when you're feeling totally mellow and chillaxed about cooking, with lots of time on your hands, and (definitely) an open bottle of red to keep you company].



First, you make the sage butter by heating butter, fresh sage, sea salt, and honey over low heat. Then you pour it over the chopped delicata squash and toss it until everything is coated and roast the squash for an hour. (The recipe said to use a 8-inch square baking dish, but no way were my two chopped squash going to fit in that pan. And then, since there was extra room in the 13x9, I added one large diced sweet onion).


Then, you cook the pasta until al dente and set it aside. (I used 100% whole wheat rotini, because I hoped -- rightly it turned out -- the firm texture and nutty, grainy flavor would benefit the finished dish. I also tossed the cooked pasta with a little unsalted butter before setting it aside, because butter is flavor and dried-out noodles are just sad).

Then, you toast the pecans in a skillet until fragrant and set aside. (I have a horror of burning nuts so I may have under-toasted mine, but they were still delicious).


Then, you add the pasta and blue cheese (Litehouse Simply Artisan Reserve Blue Cheese Crumbles, because I wanted an affordable mild, creamy blue) to the squash pan and give everything a good stir, garnish with toasted pecans, and eat ... except I was like "To hell with garnishing!" and stirred the pecans in with the pasta, squash, and cheese. It might not have been so photogenic, but I liked that the pecans became coated with the melting cheese and pan juices.

Eaten straight from the baking dish, this rotini was really good. The onion and extra butter definitely helped, I think, as did using a soft blue that mostly melted into the dish. The flavors really came together and I loved the sweet caramelized delicata squash. Definitely didn't need any bacon! 13/10 would make again.

Next, I think, I'll try Melt's "Pastitsio with Kefalotyri and Lamb," because I love a good pastitsio/pastichio. But, yeah, it's going to be even more time consuming. Wine will help, no doubt.

25 October 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Wrong Time To Sprout

Foolhardy pumpkin seed trying its best to sprout ... the frost will get it soon enough.

14 October 2017

Jamie Oliver's Roasted Cod with Tomatoes, Basil, & Mozz

Jamie Oliver's "Roasted Cod with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil and Mozzarella" from Happy Days with the Naked Chef (Hyperion, 2002) remains one of my favorite ways to prepare cod. It's a fantastic-tasting dish -- very simple with bright, clean flavors -- and goes together lickety-split, making it perfect for weeknight suppers. It takes less than an hour to prepare and is so satisfying! I usually serve it with green salad and/or buttery parslied potatoes.


Oliver's recipe calls for fresh basil, but I've also made it several times with a mixture of fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano -- much depends on which herb plants are thriving at the time. Also, cherry tomatoes are great in this recipe, but sliced beefsteak tomatoes will also work. Again, much depends on what's in the garden!




12 October 2017

Improv Cooking Challenge: Sugar & Spice

October's Improv Cooking Challenge is all about sugar and spice (and everything nice). Since the local farmers markets and orchards are brimming with apples, I thought I would combine the three to make a spiced apple cake perfect for celebrating the autumn season. And then I thought I'd bake it in a bundt pan, because a bundt makes an effortlessly pretty cake and I am all about least effort.


I grated the apple using the largest holes on my box grater as the smaller holes just turned the apple into applesauce. As far as what kind of apples to use, I would say any cooking apple you enjoy would be fine in this cake.

While I used slivered almonds in this cake, I think finely chopped walnuts or pecans would give the cake a better texture. The slivered almonds were a little large and hard and kind-of dominated the mouthfeel of the cake.

But, almonds aside, this cake is good. Moist, sweet, and fragrant with spices ... it's something I'll be making often with my CSA share apples. It is equally tasty as a snack or as breakfast.

Apple Spice Bundt

Yield: 1 10-inch round

Ingredients

  • ½ cup shortening
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cored grated apple, peeled if desired
  • 1 cup slivered almonds

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter and flour a 6-cup bundt pan.
  3. Mix the flour, baking soda, and spiced together in a bowl. Set aside.
  4. Cream the shortening and sugars together. Add the eggs and beat well.
  5. Add flour mixture and buttermilk, alternating. Add apples and nuts.
  6. Pour into bundt pan and bake for 1 hour at 350°F or or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
  7. Remove from oven. Let stand 20 minutes; remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour. Glaze, if desired, or eat. Will keep in a well-sealed cake tin for 4-5 days.

I chose to glaze my bundt with a simple spice glaze of 1 cup confectionary sugar, 2 Tbsp milk, and 1 tsp Penzeys pie spice blend. Because I knew it would take another hour or so for the glaze to set, I helped myself to a good chunk of cake before glazing so I wouldn't have to wait! Turns out the cake is equally good with or without the glaze!


For anyone new to my blog, the Improv Cooking Challenge is a monthly blog hop where two ingredients are assigned, participants must make a new-to-their-blog recipe using both ingredients, and publish a blog post about it on the second Thursday of the month. If you think that sounds like fun, click on the Improv Cooking Challenge logo below.





11 October 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Rainy Leaf

Rain-speckled leaf on a wet autumn day.

08 October 2017

Lazy Roasted Chicken Thighs & Vegetables

This dish one-pan chicken and vegetable dish makes a comforting supper on a murky October Sunday. Not only will it fill your house with delicious odors, but it assembles in no time at all and can simply be forgotten in the oven until the timer goes ding -- leaving sufficient time for book-reading or cat-petting.

While I used fresh thyme when I made this, because that's what was still thriving in my garden, fresh oregano or marjoram would be tasty, too. You could probably use drumsticks instead of thighs, but I don't know how that would change the cooking time -- a meat thermometer would be a your friend, there. I wouldn't use boneless skinless thighs, because the bones lend flavor and the crackly roasted chicken skin is not to be missed.




Lazy Roasted Chicken Thighs & Vegetables

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 6 small yellow potatoes, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • Handful of fresh thyme sprigs
  • Salt and pepper, as desired

Instructions

  1. Place the chicken thighs in a casserole dish.
  2. Arrange tomatoes, potatoes, and garlic cloves around the chicken.
  3. Drizzle everything with olive oil and season generously of with salt and pepper. Scatter with thyme sprigs.
  4. Roast, uncovered for 45 minutes or until chicken thighs reach 165°F.
  5. Set oven to broil and broil 5 min or until chicken skin is crisped and brown.

Serve the chicken and vegetables in shallow bowls with chunks of delicious crusty bread to sop up all the lovely pan juices.

04 October 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Autumn Comes Creeping In

Mother Nature's been splashing around with her paint pots, again.

28 September 2017

The Scents (& Flavors) of Autumn: Slow Cooker Apple Butter

Now that autumn is properly here, it seemed a good time wrap myself in the wonderful smells of apples and cinnamon. Also, my most recent CSA share included five pounds of absurdly large MacIntosh apples and, while I like apples, grapefruit-sized apples seemed too big for a quick snack. I thought about stuffing and baking them, but that seemed like too much work. Then I thought about slow cooker applesauce -- it's always worked out well in the past -- but that did not excite me. And then I thought ... well, what about apple butter? My mom used to can her own apple butter and it was fabulous stuff. While I doubted I could make anything as good as hers, I could certainly try.


I used a friend's spiralizer to process the apples, because I thought the thinner ribbons would cook down more quickly than chunks might, but it probably didn't matter as I left it to cook all day while I was at work. When I came home, the whole house smelled like apple pie and the apples had reduced to a dark brown sludge -- sludge sounds decidedly ewww, I know, but it's the texture I was looking for.

I whizzed everything 'round with a stick blender and then let it cook for another hour while I futzed around on the internet. Afterwords, I decanted the apple butter into my prettiest jars (which was not a good idea as the jars are blue which means the apple butter looks greenish and that's just not super appetizing) and let it cool before storing it in the fridge.

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

Yield: 1½ pints

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs of apples
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ½ tsp salt

Instructions

  1. Using the straight blade, spiralize the apples, leaving the skin on.
  2. Add apples and all other ingredients to slow cooker insert and stir to mix.
  3. Cover and cook apples on low for 10 hours on low or until apples are dark brown, completely soft, and very reduced in volume.
  4. Puree the apples with an immersion blender until smooth.
  5. Continue cooking, partially covered, on low for 1 hour more or until the apple butter has reduced to your desired thickness. (It will continue to thicken as it cools, fyi).
  6. Refrigerate apple butter in airtight containers for up to 2 weeks or freeze until needed.
What to do with apple butter? Other than the obvious straight-from-the-jar-with-a-spoon? Spread it on muffins, toast, or bagels. Pair it with chopped walnuts and stir it into your breakfast yogurt or oatmeal. Whizz it with vanilla ice cream and bourbon for a boozy shake. Bake it into a bundt!

27 September 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Snoozin'

It's very tiring, being a kitty. Good thing there are lots of
squashy cushions and sunlit windows for napping.

26 September 2017

Slow Cooker Soups with my CSA Bounty

My fabulous friend, Kelly, has handed her CSA share over to me as between school, work, and raising a family, she does not have the time or wherewithal to cope with huuuge amounts of produce. So, hooray, extra fruit and vegetables for me! Except, I already have a CSA share of my own. Only a quarter share, mind you, but still a decent amount of produce. I don't want anything to go to waste, but I don't have a lot of time to cook or process everything I've been given.

So! I've made a lot of soup! "Creamy Roasted Cherry Tomato Soup" from this blog as well as Taste of Home's "Cheddar Corn Chowder," "Chicken Barley Soup," and "Curried Leek Soup."


The corn chowder and barley soup recipes were taken from the copy of Taste of Home's Soups: 380 Heartwarming Family Favorites I received in my winter Taste the Seasons box. I've made near a dozen recipes from this book now and only the barley soup came near disappointing. Still, I can see where that soup could be improved with additional seasonings and alliums and will revisit it soon.

The cheddar corn chowder recipe alone earns this cookbook a permanent place on my bookshelves. While I did tart mine up with leftover roasted CSA-share corn and Cabot cheddar the bones of the recipe are good ones. I don't doubt it will also be perfectly delicious when made as written with frozen or canned corn in the dark, cold heart of winter. It's a creamy, cheesy, rich, and filling soup that goes well with a bit of green salad and buttery toast.

The curried leek soup was also fabulous. It's a rich, fragrant, comforting soup that works well for breakfast or lunch and I very happily ate it three days running. However, I dare say it's the kind of soup that only a leek lover would enjoy as the flavor of the leeks, mellow as they are by being sautéed in butter, are still very leeky. Mind you, I may have simply used too many leeks. My leeks were medium sized compared to some of the monsters for sale at the farmer's market, but that doesn't mean they were a cookbook writer's medium. Regardless, it's a tasty soup for leek lover's and I recommend it.

25 September 2017

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris


The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris tells two parallel stories -- one of Claire, an older Englishwoman who visited Paris as a young woman and fell in love, and one of Anna, a younger Englishwoman who takes Claire’s advice and moves to Paris after an unfortunate industrial accident at a local chocolate plant. Anna finds work at Le Chapeau Chocolat under world famous Thierry Girard, ebullient chocolatier and former lover of Claire. She learns much about chocolate, life, and love and truly becomes a better Anna for it all.

While I was moved to tears at points, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is an essentially light-hearted delight, full of lovingly-written descriptions of Paris and delicious confections. I’ve never thought to visit Paris, but I definitely would if Jenny Colgan (or Sami, but I might not be brave enough for Sami) were my tour guide. Colgan’s Paris is very bohemian -- very Moulin Rouge – and filled with wine, food, music, passion, and romance. All the best things, really.

Like many of Colgan’s other foodie romances, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris comes with recipes, including ones for “The World’s Best Hot Chocolate” and “Malteser Cake.” I’ve made Malteser cakes before, but never from scratch, so will probably give that a go now that we’re back to cake baking-weather!

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan (Sourcebooks, 2014)

23 September 2017

Cookbook Club!

A few months ago, I started a cookbook club at my new library. My supervisor suggested I start a nonfiction book club and a cookbook club seemed like a natural fit, considering my own interests and the patron base I was working with. I'm not sure cookbook clubs are quite on trend, anymore, but registration has maxed out every month and everyone who actually turns up has been really happy to be there and shown great creativity with their dishes.

The requirements are simple:
  1. Make a dish fitting the month's theme using a library cookbook
  2. Make copies of your recipe to share
  3. On the appointed day, at the appointed time, bring your dish and copies to the library
  4. Discuss your dish and the cookbook you used with fellow club goers
  5. Eat
The club started in July and so far we've done "Fresh Cooking with Local Produce" in June, "Cool & Refreshing Summer Salads" in July, and "Picnic Foods: Dishes to Make & Take" in August. September is "Fall Flavors," but with the hot weather we've been having and the general weirdness of the growing season, I really think it's a bit early for fall flavors. Well, that's what I get for setting the schedule three months in advance!

"Spring Coleslaw" from Cooking from the Garden: Best Recipes from Kitchen Gardener

Since I'm working, I need dishes that can be prepared in advance and then happily left alone in the fridge or on the countertop until serving. So far, I've made a spring slaw, a Middle Eastern vegetable salad, and a tray of s'more brownies. I think the slaw was the best of the three, but the brownies did not last the evening so clearly dessert is something to bring more often.

"Middle Eastern Vegetable Salad" from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?

However, I am not bringing dessert this month. No, I found the perfect way to use some of my scarily huge beets! I made beet hummus from Cara Mangini's The Vegetable Butcher. It's a really simple, straight-forward recipe with only five ingredients. Just wrap the beets in foil and roast them, scrape the skin off when they're cool enough to handle, and blend with salt, lemon juice, tahini, and olive oil until smooth. Adjust the seasoning to taste -- this is important as the recipe as published is a bit bland, imho. The finished hummus keeps in the fridge for five days and is simply beautiful to look at. If you like beets, I really recommend giving this recipe a try.


Roasted beet "hummus" from The Vegetable Butcher

Can't wait to see what everyone else brings to the meeting -- "Cool Weather Comfort: Soups, Stews, & Bread" in October!